Online learning: Gaining momentum, facing challenges

online degree

Advocates of online higher education like to describe the Web as a supremely transformative force in America's university system, one that breaks down barriers to degree programs for nontraditional students and improves the overall quality of learning by broadening access to courses that would be otherwise beyond the reach of many degree candidates.

And, judging by the numbers, they have a sound case to make.

Enrollment in online courses grew by around 1 million students in 2010, or 21 percent, compared to 2 percent growth in overall college enrollment, according to the most recent survey (.pdf here) conducted by the Sloan Consortium, or Sloan-C, widely recognized as a leading authority on online higher education. That marks the highest year-over-year growth rate in online higher ed since Sloan began reporting on online enrollment in 2003. Sloan estimates that almost 30 percent of higher education students are now taking at least one class online.

"It's very clear that over the last decade, online higher education has become a totally mainstream phenomenon. It's one of those trends that just keeps going up every year. I expect that that will continue," said Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "Whether it will disrupt higher education is a more interesting question."

Growing pains

For all of the exuberance over the prospects for online higher education, and the demonstrable evidence of its growing reach to be found in swelling enrollments in institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, experts remain divided in their assessments of the impact of distance learning, particularly in traditional public and private colleges and universities.

Even the authors of the Sloan-C study warn that the continued growth of online enrollment is imperiled by an array of factors, including looming government regulations and a still-shaky economy.

"There may be some clouds on the horizon," Elaine Allen, co-director Babson Survey Research Group, which jointly conducted the Sloan survey, said in a statement. "While the sluggish economy continues to drive enrollment growth, large public institutions are feeling budget pressure and competition from the for-profit sector institutions. In addition, the for-profit schools worry new federal rules on financial aid and student recruiting may have a negative impact on enrollments."

The regulations Allen refers to come from the Department of Education and would establish stringent new criteria that for-profit schools would have to meet in order to garner federal financial aid.

The Sloan survey found that online education, and projections to expand e-learning programs in the future, are closely coupled with for-profit institutions. All told, 63 percent of institutional respondents reported that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy, up from 59 percent the previous year, with the largest increase among for-profit schools.

The regulations, known as "gainful employment" for the mandate they would establish requiring for-profit schools to provide documentation about degree recipients' success in finding jobs in their field, are set to take effect July 1. According to the Department of Education, students at for-profit schools account for 11 percent of higher-education students, but 26 percent of all student loans. The department estimates that for-profit students represent 43 percent of all loan defaulters, while upwards of 25 percent of all for-profit schools garner 80 percent of their revenue from federal student aid.

"Let me be clear: we're moving forward on gainful employment regulations," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the new rules, which have encountered vigorous opposition from for-profit education companies. "While a majority of career colleges play a vital role in training our workforce to be globally competitive, some bad actors are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use."

The letter of the law

Carey suggested that for-profit schools are retrenching and slowing enrollments as they gird for the new regulations. But he expects that only to have a modest effect on the continued momentum of online education.

"Assuming that the regulations are somewhat similar to what has been discussed, I expect that will have the effect of slowing the exponential growth of enrollment in some big online universities," he said. "It won't change the basic trend upward."

Even if the for-profit sector takes a hit from the new regulations, however, online education could find greater adoption in mainstream schools as a result of the dire fiscal situation many statehouses are grappling with, according to Louis Soares, director of the Postsecondary Education Program at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

"Gainful employment may slow down implementation on the for-profit side," Soares said, "but shrinking state budgets will increase online enrollment on the traditional higher ed side."

Apart from the looming federal intervention, online university instruction continues to suffer from the perception in some quarters--whether deserved or not--that distance learning is inherently inferior to its traditional education. The academic community remains divided on the comparative value of online education measured against face-to-face instruction. Over the eight years that Sloan has been conducting its survey, the portion of respondents who viewed the quality of online courses as equivalent or superior to face-to-face instruction rose from 57 percent in 2003 to 66 percent last year, what the authors describe as "a small, but noteworthy increase." Yet doubters remain.

"Online is still in the poor brand phase," Soares said. "In another 10-15 years this will fade."

Some of that brand improvement could come by way of standardization in the still young and fragmented field. Sloan itself has acknowledged that the quality of instruction varies widely among online course offerings. Last month, the group endorsed a 70-point "quality scorecard" with a tiered grading system ranging from "exemplary" to "unacceptable."

"We are committed to championing quality in online education and providing our members the resources they need to be successful," John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, said in announcing the new metrics. "We believe the quality scorecard is a breakthrough tool for standardizing the industry and for enabling online learning institutions not only to measure and report on the quality of their programs, but to identify areas for improvement."

Due process

Education Sector's Carey was quick to note that the stigma that sometimes accompanies online schools might not be entirely warranted, arguing that outside of basic accreditation, standardization among traditional schools is largely absent and quality varies widely, while their online counterparts are "guilty until proven innocent."

At the same time, online instruction remains deeply rooted in the community of nontraditional learners, students for whom a full-time, four-year residential program is not an option, for any number of reasons. Carey suggested that community college, something of a middle ground between traditional public schools and for-profit upstarts, could provide a beachhead for online instruction to solidify its position in the mainstream of higher education. But for what might be termed traditional students, attending a four-year public or private school remains a "middle-class luxury," almost a rite of passage that offers nonacademic benefits, Carey said, noting that campus life is a period of acculturation and, for many, the time when young people meet their spouse.

"Higher education's about a lot more than studying for a lot of students," he said.

But there is a middle ground that could ease the transition for traditional institutions to online learning. Sloan defines blended or hybrid courses as those in which 30 percent to 79 percent of the material is delivered online. For a basic introductory lecture course, the impersonal sort where hundreds of students sit in an auditorium taking notes that virtually every traditional school offers, online instruction could provide a compelling and lower-cost alternative.

"There are certainly well-designed online programs that are customized and flexible in a way that sitting in a lecture hall at 10:30 in the morning twice a week is not," Carey said.

Ultimately, Soares of American Progress anticipates a hybrid model taking hold where Web-based instruction simply becomes another element in the blend of higher education.

"Blended learning is the wave of the future," he said. "Pedagogy has always used different tools to educate people--lecture, projects, peer-to-peer learning, contextualization. Online solutions will become a part of this rich mix."

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